Monday, February 5, 2007

Clifford Irving - a Quintessential Runagate

I was tickled to learn just last evening, that the 1972 Howard Hughes Autobiography Hoax has been filmed, and is set for release in early April. THE HOAX stars Richard Gere playing novelist and con-man Clifford Irving, the man who nearly took publishing giants McGraw-Hill and TIME-LIFE for U.S.$765,000. , the lions share believed to be a payment to Howard Hughes. Irving convinced the publishers that he was ghosting Hughes' memoirs, and also serving as a go-between. Gambling that Hughes, a notoriously reclusive billionaire, would not break silence to expose their fraud, Irving had his wife set up an account in a Swiss bank under the name H.R. Hughes, to cash the larger portion of the advance money. Hughes did emerge from the shadows, sufficient to ensure that Irving, his wife, and co-writer Richard Suskind were prosecuted.

Why a film now? There is no questioning the fact that Martin Scorcese's fabulous recent movie THE AVIATOR, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role as Howard Hughes, has created a fresh audience for the Hughes Legend. That film concludes in the 1950s with Hughes sinking into mental instability, and leaving the door wide open for any savvy movie producers to exploit a thick vein of ore. One obvious link between the two movies is Nina van Pallandt (shown above on a LIFE cover) Nina was Clifford's mistress at the time that Mr. and Mrs. Irving were pulling off the con. Her beauty added spice to the media frenzy which enveloped the case, and her career continued even as the Irving's were being punished. Pallandt co-starred in the 1980 movie AMERICAN GIGOLO, which launched Richard Gere's career. Now they are reunited onscreen to tell a story of which she has intimate knowledge.

This is my personal copy of Irving's book, (Grove Press, 1972) heavily thumbed and annotated. I also have the 1978 edition published in England as PROJECT OCTAVIO. His website says the book was "written in blood". Octavio was the codename given to the project by the New York publishers, who were hungry to protect their "scoop". In an incredible stroke of luck, TIME-LIFE gave Irving access to its massive research files on Hughes and his associates. He described it as "a treasure trove." This allowed the hoaxster to sell them a book partially constructed from their own files.

Irving obtained much of his knowledge about espionage tradecraft and forgery from work on earlier books, but I always suspected there was something missing in his explanation of "What Really Happened". He had spent much time in Israel in the mid-1960s and wrote a book called The Battle of Jerusalem: The Six-Day War, published in 1970. I cannot help believing that there was an Israeli component to the Hughes Hoax story. It is safe conjecture that Irving was alert for and searching for biographical and business information which would interest Israel, should his Hughes scam be blown, or the publishers simply lose confidence in the project. Howard Hughes was a major United States defence contractor, manufacturing missiles and helicopters, and Israel was a major Hughes customer. I may never learn the truth of it.

Clifford Irving has a website, and the affable runagate generously offers free downloads of chapters from the fake Hughes memoir, as well as chapters from his new novel. I'm rather fond of the old rascal. I do look forward to the movie and certainly wish him success with his new novel.

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